he hand-knitted, bulky jumpers were hilarious to us – the green so harsh and one in maroon, the colour of old blood with nothing fresh about it.
Did his wife go for reject wool, cheapest in some sale, then spend an age on that cable stitch?
And if reluctant to buy sufficient to make his jerseys long enough, why complicated patterns which used more wool? Or was it that she didn’t have the heart to see through what had been started, so just cast off?
Both thick jumpers made him look squashed inside too tight. They rode up his belly. Not that he was fat, just squaring up with age, turning barrel-shaped.
But “hilarious”? Only because Sally and I merged in giggles – our differences gone – stitched together.
There with her, not to be alone, there for arriving, there at break. There and ready to be side by side — then getting away from school together, sometimes picking ourselves flowers out of front gardens as we went.
At the start of secondary school we found each other and protection.
We did not recognise it then but our being sealed together kept out critical peers and fault finding masters.
“Giddy,” irritated teachers said, but they could be semi-wiped away with laughter.
“Joined at the hip,” Sally’s mother complained.
Mine was more put out that giggling excluded her – she would tell us to share the joke or stop our nonsense.
But what could we share? We didn’t recognise that with our bubble to make school safer we, too, were playing out a pattern.
As we brushed each other’s hair on Sally’s bed – one hundred strokes we had been told was best – flesh softened but this never went into the explicitly sexual.
He taught maths in those jumpers. He and his wife did puzzles together he told us. (“Instead of sex” bold boys in the back row muttered. “And do you share a cup of cocoa, Sir?”)
His chunky jaw twitched a little but he persevered with numbers.
He wasn’t a write-off, unlike the French master, who had no hope of keeping control. Besides, any foreign language seemed irrelevant to us.
A shrieked, “Get out! Get out! Get out of my class,” not even in French, was the best he could do, to general laughter. And since his room was a pre-fab, near the park, there were usually a few grateful rejects smoking under trees.
The maths man wasn’t as hopeless as that, though ungainly. He offered nothing to admire, for he was not even a sporting man.
We didn’t have to be talented at anything to disparage teachers for seeming mediocre.
Not that we honed critical faculties by discussing this. Giggling was as far as we could go, during two years of puberty, where Sally was developing way ahead.
Once we were thoroughly adolescent, she was drawn to lipstick girls.
And after set exams put us in different classes, we grew apart in months.
If we weren’t one, were we anything to each other?
Once the magnetic pull turned round, there was some repulsion at what we had been together.
Teachers began to have some draw for me as they opened up a world away.
More solitude brought me long walks with the dog and notebooks for high blown poetry.
And when no longer sealed in with a best friend, could I recall anything we had said to each other?
During weeks off school, after my father rolled our car, the event was described, not to Sally, but only to a girl in a younger class.
Though Sally did visit once and put fingers round my wrist to laugh at its reduced size.
Her very white skin was inclined to bulge, her big sister was a family worry on an extreme diet. After the car accident, followed by my surgery, “there is not an ounce of flesh on those bones of yours” she mocked.
Since we had talked and talked, why did so little conversation remain?
While the maths master’s words sank into memory and have never been rubbed out.
“My wife is the better mathematician.”
He said this in class. Was it when I had done well? Or not a comment intended for me – just a factual statement to all of us?
I took it as mine. Words to keep.
Years later, on a visit home, Sally and I met up again.
I was too pleased at having escaped what had appeared as set tracks for good women, good knitting wives keeping to the pattern.
Sally was defensive over having stayed. She intended to work even if she married. Things were changing in the town.
“I guess our exclusiveness retarded us as much as it was mean to others”.
Having no interest in what I was on about, Sally bubbled with need to display her achievements.
Did she remember the old maths teacher?
Did she know if he continued at the school? Had she ever seen his supposedly frumpy, knitting wife?
No and she had no idea.” Why care?”
“Remember him saying his wife was the better mathematician?”
“That must have been after you started working.”
That was not how it seemed to me.
Once school certificate results arrived, Sally’s parents made explicit the competitive aspect, which was never exposed in our family.
When they declared it a pity their daughter hadn’t followed my example and worked hard, then she would not be such a disappointment, I ran away. And felt sure I’d not go back to face that again.
At home competing must be kept to sport – not spilling over to include struggles for approval, or love, in a house full of children. That was not acknowledged by any of us.
And was “worked” what I had done? The term implied it was my fault if Sally and I were not a pair in our exam results – as if beating her was my choice and my responsibility.
Whatever it was, the different results meant we were separated. There was no one to giggle with and seeing school as a step towards going elsewhere began to make sense.
But the wife, who was a better mathematician, where was she going, apart from to the shop to buy ugly wool?